How did we reach this point in Thai politics?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Ten years ago the military, the middle-classes, and the various sections of the conservative elites, set about to destroy democracy. Since 2006 there have been two military coups, a number of judicial coups and mass anti-democracy protests by royalist middle-class mobs, supported by the Democrat Party. Over a hundred pro-democracy activists have been shot down in cold blood by the military and Thai jails now hold more political prisoners than they have done for decades. The country is now run by an arrogant but not very bright military regime. How and why did this happen?

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The Asian Economic crisis in 1997 was the spark that exposed the existing fault-lines in Thai society, and the actions of political actors in response to this, eventually led to a back-lash against democracy by the conservatives.

The main reason for the present Thai political crisis can be traced back to this 1997 economic crisis and the attempt by Taksin Shinawat to modernise Thai society and reduce inequality while relying on mass support for his policies at elections. These policies were also designed to benefit big business, increasing profits and competitiveness. Taksin called this a “dual track” strategy, using a mixture of neo-liberalism and “grass-roots Keynesianism”. Among this raft of policies was the first ever universal health care scheme.

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Because the Democrat Party, and other elites, had ignored the plight of the poor during the crisis, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich and the middle-classes in failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Taksin’s TRT won the first post-1997 elections. The government was unique in being both popular and dynamic, with real policies, which were used to win the elections and were then implemented afterwards. Never-the-less, his government was not unique in the fact that it committed gross human rights abuses. Previously, the old parties had just bought votes without any policies. Taksin’s real policies reduced vote-buying and his overwhelming electoral base came to challenge the old way of conducting politics, eventually angering those who could not win the hearts and minds of the people.

The 1997 economic crisis exposed the material reality of Thai society which had developed rapidly over many decades but which was in conflict with an unchanged conservative “Superstructure”. This is the dynamic of conflict which was harnessed by Taksin.

It would be a mistake to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two factions of the elite. It has another important dimension that cannot be ignored. We need to understand the role of the Red Shirts who had a “dialectical” relationship with their idol Taksin. There existed a kind of “parallel war” where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état.

Despite the fact that many believe that the centre of power among the conservative elites is the monarchy, the real centre of power, lurking behind the throne, is the military. King Pumipon is a weak and characterless monarch who spent his useless and privileged life in a bubble, surrounded by fawning, and grovelling toadies. He is, and always has been, a puppet of the military and the conservative elites. The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand is primarily caused by a “crisis of succession”, is a top-down view which assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that he has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case. There is no absolute monarch in his final years causing a potential power vacuum. All sides have also agreed that the scandal-prone and despicable prince will be the next king. To place the Princess, who has no male partner, on the throne instead, would immediately destroy all the “reinvented tradition” about the monarchy and undermine its mythical legitimacy. What is more the Prince will be even more of a weak and potential tool of the military because he cares nothing about affairs of state. The issue of royal succession is therefore of little relevance here, despite it being fashionable for journalists and academics to use this as a standard explanation for the crisis. [see http://bit.ly/2cju72D ]

The crisis has not been caused by a conflict between the monarchy and Taksin or the supposed presence of an anti-Taksin “Deep State”, either. There is no Deep State in Thailand. In order to argue for the existence of a so-called “Deep State”, the power of the King has to be exaggerated, the involvement of mass movements ignored, and long-running fractures within the military and conservative elites have to be overlooked. Taksin Shinawat, as a member of the ruling class, commanded a great deal of influence over sections of the military and judiciary in his early days as Prime Minister because of his promise to modernise Thailand after the 1997 economic crisis. The conservatives only turned against him when they could not compete with his electoral advantage as they were either not prepared to join him, or were not prepared to offer the population the kind of policies that would improve their lives. Thailand does not have some stable, unchanging core, of conservative reactionaries embedded deep within the state. There are fluid and dynamic bonds between members of the ruling class as the various factions make or break alliances in an opportunistic manner. Some of Taksin’s faction were drawn from the left, while others came from the conservative and royalist right-wing, who took part in attacks against democracy during the Cold War. Samak Sundaravej is a good example of the latter. [see http://bit.ly/29H0FC9]

The results of the referendum on the junta’s draft constitution on the 7th August 2016 were disappointing and are a set-back for democracy. But we should not forget that this was never a democratic referendum and 10 million people voted against accepting the constitution.

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This is not a time to retreat and try to build some kind of political consensus in civil society, as suggested by exiled academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul. Such a suggestion is not only a pipe-dream, but in practice would result in “half democracy”. This idea stems from Somsak’s lack of confidence in the potential power and relevance of pro-democracy social movements.

The way forward is to build a mass social movement against the junta. The rich experience of Thai mass movements defeating the military in 1973 and 1992 and the huge potential of the Red Shirt movement should be revisited. It is time to stop playing symbolic games organised by a handful of self-appointed heroes. Such misguided views arise from a mistaken analysis that in the days of social media we do not need to build mass movements. Ridding Thailand of the influence of the military will take time and determined political organisation.

 

My full paper written for “10 years of Politico-Social Crisis in Thailand”, a seminar organised by “Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy” at CCFD-Terre Solidaire building, Paris, France, 19/9/2016, can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2  or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa

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